U.S. Census Bureau Announces Closing of the Frontier Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

According to a report of the U.S. Census Bureau, the year 1890 marking the closing of the American frontier—an event that coincided with the last of the Indian wars. The report moved a young historian to develop a thesis on the role of the frontier in U.S. history that has been debated ever since.

Summary of Event

Following the French and Indian War (1756-1763), the victorious British government issued the Proclamation of 1763 and created a frontier line between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River. This reserved the land to the west “for the moment” to the American Indians, closing it to settlers and land speculators until King George III George III decided what to do with the newly acquired North American territories that had previously been dominated by the French. American frontiersmen, such as Daniel Boone, ignored the British proclamation and pushed west of the Alleghenies, precipitating pitched battles with various American Indian tribes, loosely led by the Shawnee chief Pontiac. Frontier, American;closing of Turner, Frederick Jackson Frontier, American;Turner thesis [kw]U.S. Census Bureau Announces Closing of the Frontier (1890) [kw]Census Bureau Announces Closing of the Frontier, U.S. (1890) [kw]Bureau Announces Closing of the Frontier, U.S. Census (1890) [kw]Announces Closing of the Frontier, U.S. Census Bureau (1890) [kw]Closing of the Frontier, U.S. Census Bureau Announces (1890) [kw]Frontier, U.S. Census Bureau Announces Closing of the (1890) Frontier, American;closing of Turner, Frederick Jackson Frontier, American;Turner thesis [g]United States;1890: U.S. Census Bureau Announces Closing of the Frontier[5690] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1890: U.S. Census Bureau Announces Closing of the Frontier[5690]

Skirmishes between Native Americans and frontiersmen led Thomas Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;and Native Americans[Native Americans] to write in the Declaration of Independence that King George had “endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” Using these words, Jefferson indelibly linked all American Indian nations to the colonists’ definition of frontier.

In 1890, when the U.S. Census Bureau Census. U.S. declared the frontier to be closed, it used a definition of “frontier” as an area containing not fewer than two nor more than six persons per square mile and described as “a line between Indians and homesteaders.” In his report, the director of the Census Bureau stated that “there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.”

After the Census Bureau report was released, Frederick Jackson Turner, a young history teacher at the University of Wisconsin, was intrigued by its assertion and concluded that the closing of the frontier symbolized the end of a great historic movement. He published his thesis in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” a paper that he delivered to the American Historical Association in Chicago in 1893. Turner’s paper described the line between American Indians and homesteaders as “a meeting point between savagery and civilization,” thereby placing his own signature to Jefferson’s words.

Historians of that time took little exception to the word “savages” and dwelt instead upon the appealing thesis of Turner’s paper, for it held that U.S. society and institutions were unique, resulting from the existence of “an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward.” According to Turner, Europeans had come to America with their cultural baggage, but in the process of adjusting to and ultimately overcoming the primitive environment in which they found themselves, they were transformed into something new—Americans living in an American social setting with distinctly American institutions. This change did not occur all at once as a result of a single meeting by one group of immigrants with a wilderness environment. It was, rather, the result of the repetition of this process on a succession of frontiers over many decades.

Turner noted that there were important differences, as well as similarities, between frontiers. For example, the farming frontier of the Midwest was different from the mining frontier of the Rocky Mountains, and the woodland frontier of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was different from the Great Plains frontier of the nineteenth century. At the same time, on virtually all frontiers, the first European immigrants were fur trappers and traders, who they were followed by cattle raisers, pioneer farmers, and government-sponsored explorers. To some areas came miners and ranchers. The process ended with the establishment of villages and towns.

In Turner’s thesis, as an Americanizing influence, the frontier had several discernible aspects. It transformed European immigrants of diverse cultural backgrounds into a composite nationality. It promoted a feeling of nationalism among the people and produced such nation-building events as the Louisiana Purchase. It also promoted democracy not only by encouraging individualism and antipathy toward control but also because of the relative economic equality that existed there. According to Turner, the frontier exerted an important influence on the people living along it. It produced in its inhabitants a combination of coarseness and strength, acuteness and inquisitiveness, practicality and ingenuity, together with restlessness and optimism. While encouraging individualism, the frontier sometimes also encouraged cooperation, especially in defense against the native peoples and in seeking help from government in the form of military assistance and favorable economic legislation.

Less laudable, in Turner’s view, was the influence of the frontier in promoting laxity in governmental affairs and business dealings, in its general disrespect for law and order accompanied by an impatience with legal processes, and by its attitude of anti-intellectualism. Turner also implied that the frontier alleviated many social and economic problems inherent in an industrial society and was a safety valve for the discontented.

U.S. Lands Settled by 1890

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After a generation of almost universal acceptance, the Turner thesis began to be vigorously attacked during the 1920’s, both for what he had said and for what he had failed to say. Historians of a generation that had been reshaped by World War I no longer ignored the exploitation, land thefts, industrialization, lawlessness, and imperialism that had characterized European cultures and that also shaped the United States. Other critics said that Turner had paid no attention to artistic, educational, social, and literary developments; that his terms were ambiguous; that he had failed to test his hypothesis against other frontier experiences; and that his ideas were provincial and some of his statements contradictory. Turner was also criticized for failing to pay attention to the rise of country towns. The rise of towns in the Great Plains between the 1860’s Frontier, American;and transportation[Transportation] and 1890’s was a direct result of the expansion of railroading in the United States.

Following the Civil War (1861-1865), rights-of-way were granted to the railroads, Railroads;and American frontier[American frontier] virtually wherever they wanted them. Even American Indian reservations were crisscrossed with railroad tracks. Each railroad right-of-way included miles on either side of the tracks, which the railroads sold to homesteaders to raise money to lay more track. Railroad stops became towns. Grain, meat, and hides exported to the East perpetuated the process. By 1890, there were 197,000 miles of railroad tracks in the United States and almost the same number of miles of telegraph lines.

In 1860, as many as thirty million buffalo Buffalo;slaughter of may have roamed the Great Plains. In 1885, only five hundred buffalo remained on a reserve in Montana. Killing buffalo made room for cattle Cattle;and buffalo[Buffalo] Buffalo;and cattle[Cattle] and also helped to kill Native Americans. During the 1880’s, more than one million Europeans immigrated to the United States. In 1890, in a population of sixty-two million, eight million were engaged in agriculture. Agriculture;and railroads[Railroads] Railroads;and agriculture[Agriculture] The railroads moved ranch and farming products to market.

Turner also failed to take into account other kinds of relevant information in his thesis. For example, in 1890, six corporations controlled 99 percent of private-sector money in the United States. By 1887, the government had substituted agreements for treaties with American Indians. One such agreement granted 160 acres of personal property to American Indian family living on a reservation. The General Allotment (Dawes) Act of 1887 General Allotment Act of 1887 dispersed 32,800 allotments of land to American Indians, covering three million acres, and thus allowed the cession or sale of twenty-eight million acres of allegedly surplus land to white settlers.

Turner defended his thesis by reminding his detractors that he had never claimed the frontier to be the sole force shaping the United States as a nation. He noted that industrialization, social reform, and imperialism were equally important, but that no reasonable person could deny that three centuries of moving west, during which the U.S. people had conquered three thousand miles of wilderness, had left an imprint on U.S. history and the U.S. character.

Cover of an 1889 issue of Harper’s Weekly with an engraving from Frederic Remington’s painting titled “The Frontier Trooper’s Thanatopsis.” The trooper’s meditation on death in this picture might be seen as symbolic of the closing the frontier.

(Library of Congress)

Turner clearly shaped his thesis on the closing of the frontier to his preconceived notions and had ignored the initial conditions by which the frontier was defined by the king and colonists. He was driven by his zeal to describe a U.S. history and culture characterized by faith in democratic institutions, an insistence that class lines should never hinder social mobility, an eagerness to experiment, and a preference for the new over the old.

Significance

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, it is clear that the American frontier was, in fact, closed by 1890. In August, 1886, the Apache leader Geronimo surrendered to U.S. authorities in Arizona. In December, 1890, the great Sioux chief Sitting Bull Sitting Bull [p]Sitting Bull;death of was murdered by Indian policemen in South Dakota. During that same year, the last battle between regular army and American Indians was fought at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. That battle effectively ended thousands of years of Native American domination over North America. It was no coincidence that the year of Wounded Knee was the same year that the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier closed.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Axelrod, Alan. Chronicle of the Indian Wars. New York: Prentice Hall, 1993. Reference work that surveys the many conflicts between American Indians and U.S. government military and other officials that led to the end of the Indians’ way of life and their assimilation and restriction to reservations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Billington, Ray Allen. America’s Frontier Heritage. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. Billington turns away from Turner’s hypothesis and focuses instead on the questions about the nature of the frontier experience and the effect that it has it had on the American character.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bogue, Allan G. Frederick Jackson Turner: Strange Roads Going Down. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. Scholarly biography of Turner that attempts to show why he should be regarded as one of the most influential historians in American scholarship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Archibald R., and Thomas F. McGann, eds. The New World Looks at Its History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963. Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Historians of the United States and Mexico, emphasizing the theme of the frontier in history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parish, John Carl. The Persistence of the Westward Movement, and Other Essays. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1943. Nine essays suggesting that the American westward movement was not one but many movements of population. Parish examines the forces that brought people to the West, their attempts to reproduce the culture of the East and its necessary modifications, and finally the persistence of the westward movement as a state of mind.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paxson, Frederic Logan. When the West Is Gone. New York: Henry Holt, 1930. Consisting of three lectures delivered at Brown University only a few decades after the closing of the frontier, this brief work analyzes U.S. history from the perspective of the shifting frontier.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. 1920. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1996. Turner’s classic exposition of the frontier as a shaper of American history, which he first broached in 1893. Provocative both in its own time and today, this book is available in many editions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Utley, Robert M. The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846-1890. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984. General history of U.S.-Native American relations that includes a chapter with a useful discussion of the events leading to the Long Walk.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyman, Walker D., and Clifton B. Kroeber, eds. The Frontier in Perspective. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957. Thirteen lectures delivered at the University of Wisconsin by eminent historians from Canada, Mexico, and the United States on important aspects of the world frontier and the American frontier.

Westward American Migration Begins

Apache and Navajo War

Apache Wars

National Grange Is Formed

First Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed

Great American Buffalo Slaughter

Sioux War

Wounded Knee Massacre

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Chicago World’s Fair

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